Archive for September 2013
Yesterday a tragic incident provided proof that Gezi is far from over. Many of the facts surrounding the event are still in dispute, but what is clear is that during the course of a protest in Antakya early Tuesday morning, 22 year Ahmet Atakan died. His death triggered renewed protests across the country, including Istanbul, Ankara and the AKP stronghold of Bursa. Istiklal Boulevard in Taksim was once again the scene of police intervention with tear gas and water cannons.
Though eyewitnesses report that the protests were smaller than those at the peak of the Gezi uprising this summer, the renewed clashes between police and civilians is an important and potentially dangerous sign. Many reports state that Atakan died during a protest related to the previous death of a Gezi protester. However, some also mention that the protest Atakan participated in was against Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s civil war. Whether or not Atakan went out with the intention of protesting Turkey’s current and future involvement in Syria, his death is perfectly poised to exasperate an already tense situation.
Atakan’s hometown Antakya is located in a small peninsula of Turkish territory that sticks down like a thumb into Syria. The area has a proud history of religious and ethnic diversity, even through the periods of ethnic cleansing that homogenized much of the rest of Turkey during the 20th century. However, the Syrian civil war is putting a strain on both inter-communal relationships and the relationship between the citizens of the province and the Turkish government. Potentially making this situation even more explosive, Atakan was apparently an Arab Alawite, the ethno-religious group to which Assad belongs. Most Alawites both in and outside of Syria continue to support Assad’s government, if for no other reason than they fear the consequences for their community if the rebels prevail. So far the Alawite community in Turkey has largely kept a low profile, but this death could energize the community to lash out against the Turkish government or even Sunni refugees and fighters from Syria. Resentment of Turkey’s unofficial involvement in the Syrian civil war is not isolated to the Alawite community. Polls consistently show that the majority of Turks are against further intervention in Syria. The bombing in Reyhanli earlier this summer, which was assumed to be connected to the Syrian regime, already demonstrated the potential for retaliatory attacks against Syrian refugees in Turkey.
In addition to it’s involvement with the Syrian war, Turkey is also currently confronted with another extremely delicate internal situation. A few days ago, the much hailed peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK broke down. The Turkish government has claimed that the PKK has not withdrawn enough of its fighters from Turkish territory and now the PKK has stated that it will halt its withdrawal until progress is made on the issue of Kurdish cultural rights. Ethnically Kurdish areas generally refrained from participating in the protests this summer. However, there were representatives of the Kurdish BDP party at Gezi and the movement in general has shown itself to be sympathetic to the issue of Kurdish rights. If the protests we witnessed on Tuesday result in a revived Gezi movement, Turkey’s frustrated Kurdish minority may find this an opportune moment to revive protests for their rights as well.
The Turkish government has a potentially explosive situation on its hands. In the case of the Gezi protests of this summer, the repeated use of force by the police encouraged protesters to seek out creative non-violent ways to continue their resistance. However, if the government chooses to meet minority protesters in Turkey’s south with violence, past experiences demonstrate the potential for prolonged, deadly conflicts to erupt.